Adaptive leadership or how to assist organizations and individuals in dealing with consequential changes in uncertain times.

December 23, 2018 •

10 min reading

Adaptive leadership: How to deal with consequential changes?

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In the past, we used to see leaders as men with strong personalities, kind of the hero image implementing their will on organizations. However the hierarchical approach with command-and-control is simply not working anymore. This does not allow a good transfer of the knowledge or information and is a real obstacle to collaborative work. A collaborative work that today reality is screaming for.

The business environment has evolved and this pushes us to rethink strategy, organizations and leadership.

Many trends are corroborating this situation

  • Uncertainty have made difficult for many industries to have long-range forecasting and traditional strategic planning. If you cannot predict the outcomes of your choices how can you chart a course?
  • Organizations are more and more built as interdependent, multicompany ecosystems. Who leads whom?
  • Digitalization, machine learning and the life sciences are advancing and combining with one another which is redefining what companies do and where industry boundaries lie. How can we make sure in the age of Data we are reading and using the right signals and acting on them?
  • The interest for social and ecological impacts of business makes essential for companies to consider the value and overall cost of their strategies. How can we ensure that the social and the economics are aligned?
  • Trust in big business is shaking. How can confidence be regained?
  • The competition has become more diverse.

All these shifts in our business environment call for new strategies and organizations that can adopt highly adaptive approaches. This means also an adaptive approach to leadership. “Adaptive leaders create the conditions that enable dynamic networks of actors to achieve common goals in an environment of uncertainty”.

Several aspects could be considered in order to navigate with more ease in turbulent times. If rigid rules are not really helping in this kind of reality, the best solutions will arise through learning and adapting to change over time. So instead of going through a set of instruction,  choose to focus on the people with who you interact. Making sure you have enough diversity in your team to receive a diversity of perspectives will also be helpful. Indeed, this will allow you to generate a multiplicity of options. So go for opposing views and accept them from all your employees as it is more likely the person in the operational side or on the field that will raise critical questions.

In our reality of today, leadership should be shared. No single person can lead at all times and in all situations. So you should provide leadership to the person or group of person best positioned to guide a specific decision.

Questionning the world

Questionning the world around us is also a good way to navigate through turbulent waters. Test your own assumptions by running through experiments. How do you grasp patterns in your organization that may be masked by complexity? Get interested, ask questions and learn to read between the lines.

Adaptive leaders create a shared sense of purpose and inspire and influence their team. By understanding alternative perspectives and being empathic with our different colleagues, competitors, stakeholders we are able to get the right tools to inspire. At the end of the day, it is about seeing the world through the eyes of others. “Treat your people well and they’ll treat you well….it has to come from the heart, not the head”. In our current reality sharing a sense of purpose and values with our team is more important than ever. Rewarding employees for what they accomplished is also key. As Marissa Meyer, ex CEO of Google explained in a speech titled “Nine Lessons Learned about Creativity at Google”….it is that license to do whatever they want that really ultimately fuels a huge amount of creativity and a huge amount of innovation”.

If you encourage experimentation you are accepting some of them will fail but that is exactly how you will learn. Learning what works and what does not work you will be able to evolve as an organization. What do you currently have in place to reflect on your successes and failures? Constructive criticism is essential to changing what does not work.

It is important to have a sixth sense within your organization, take the pulse: stay close to your people and customers. Listen to your customers to find the truth about what is good about your business and what’s wrong.

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A flat organization where bureaucracy is kept to a minimum will also allow you to move faster and respond more quickly to market changes. Minimize the number of layers between the field and the CEO and you will have a lot of agility to correct what does not work.

Of course if we talk about adaptability we also have in mind sustainable success for both your organization and network of stakeholders. What is currently enabling collaboration within your organization? When exposed to complex projects or tasks, do you have an appropriate platform that enables collaborative work between your team? How do you manage all the data available in your organization? In the current ecosystem leaders must do more than maximize profitability. They have to ensure the sustainability of their organizations’ business models and look for opportunities to align economic and social and create value for all your stakeholders.

Not all challenges or environments are alike

Likewise different business models are necessary for different environments so of course different leadership styles are also needed to navigate through turbulent waters. Over time, an organization might move from one leadership style to another, however, it is good to ask yourself and your leadership teams what you are currently doing and how are you thinking today as leaders:

Are you already applying in your organization some of the above practices that allow you to be adaptive?

Do you have the right approach for your current environment?

What could be done to develop a more adaptive leadership model?

There is no checklist to become successful, however, the 4 things below should be encouraged with our people:

  • Ask questions this will allow you to learn much more than being  a passive consumer of whatever information comes to your way
  • Make mistakes. If you are not making mistakes you are not risking anything and so you are probably not growing as fast as you could. This helps us to learn. Don’t keep on making the same mistakes over again, make new mistakes!
  • Create a network. If you have a strong network you will have all the information and tools you need to succeed. The more people in your network outside your immediate team, the more you can get answers not just for you but for others. Choose to be a hub of information.
  • Find balance. The sooner you figure out what you need to feel  balanced, the easier it will be. All strong people are balanced people. Without balance in all aspects of our lives – work, home, play- we won’t have the mental and sometimes physical strength to meet the challenges of our position.

Adaptive leadership

Adaptive leadership is essentially a structure of leadership that was expanded by Ron Heifetz and Marty Linsky. The adaptive leadership model is designed to assist organizations and individuals in dealing with consequential changes in uncertain times, when no clear answers are forthcoming. Adaptive leaders identify and deal with systemic change, using techniques that confront the status quo and identify adaptive and technical challenges. The essence of adaptive leadership is to promote adaptability that allows the organization to flourish and take along its best history to help with future successes.